Turning carbon footprints into healthy soils

by Camino Verde
The Camino Verde team in Tambopata
The Camino Verde team in Tambopata

Dear Friends,

I mentioned in my last report how we'd identified what we believe is our best option for creating bio-char-- charcoal that improves soils for farmers while locking the CO2 stored by plants into a stable molecular structure that doesn't re-release the carbon.  Excitement about bio-char's potential is evident everywhere on the internet, in the world, and in the Peruvian Amazon we call home.  

That "best option" for making bio-char is the Adam Retort-- an oven or kiln designed by appropriate technologist Chris Adam-- which turns a great variety of raw materials into agriculturally useful charcoal.  I've had the pleasure of being in touch with Dr. Adam, and he's shared some of the exciting success stories of the Adam Retort around the world.  I'm including here several of the photos he sent me from projects in many different countries.  

We're excited to bring the Adam Retort to Madre de Dios, Peru, where abundant biomass will ensure an ongoing source of raw material.  Turning debris and industrial wastes like sawdust and brazil nut shells into charcoal is a win-win-- otherwise discarded or burnt (combusted) materials such as these represent an environmental problem.  As bio-char, these "waste" products become black gold.

You'll notice that interspersed with the photos of Adam Retorts from many continents are photos of the Camino Verde team in Peru flashing our new t-shirts!  Made in Peru of pima cotton, an ancient Peruvian heirloom variety, these shirts represent a tangible commitment to climate change: the tree you wear on your chest is a tree that we plant together in the Amazon.  Donate $30 or more and receive a Camino Verde t-shirt today.  (And yes, women's shirts are cut differently than the men's-- our female team members made sure of it.)

I'm excited as always to share with you our progress, and thankful for your support.  Together we're building a greener future for the Amazon, one tree at a time. 

An Adam Retort in Slovakia
An Adam Retort in Slovakia
Friends of CV
Friends of CV
An Adam Retort in Sweden
An Adam Retort in Sweden
Staffer don Juan and son
Staffer don Juan and son
Bio-char produced in Palestine
Bio-char produced in Palestine
Tree seedlings with biochar soil substrate
Tree seedlings with biochar soil substrate

Dear friends,

The first phase of our bio-char project, Turning carbon footprints into healthy soil, has been successfully funded, and successfully completed!  If you've had a chance to look at past project reports, you have a sense of what the impact potential for using charcoal agriculturally can be.

So in honor of hitting our first fundraising milestone of $10,000 (Thank You!), here's a bit about where we're at and where we came from...

1. Bio-char test plots-- We've planted several test plots of bio-char enriched soils in order to show proof of concept at a regional level and expose our farmer neighbors to the potential of bio-char.  Familiar Amazonian crops like corn and yuca (cassava) have been given the bio-char treatment with glowing results in even the most degraded soils.

2. Establishment of bio-char material "forests"-- Because bio-char is literally charred biomass, we've taken great strides to establishing sources of raw material as future char input so that we will be able to produce bio-char without affecting wild forests or biomass better left untouched.  After extensive research in the literature, we opted for bamboo as the ultimate bio-char source material-- fast growing, infinitely renewable, and secuesters more CO2 per kilo than even hardwood trees.  Additionally, our chosen local bamboo varieties are clumping types, meaning no worries about invasive runner roots taking over the neighbors' yard.  We have planted thousands of bamboo clumps, now over a year old and beginning to thrive in production of mature shoots (see photo below).

3. Research in input materials-- In addition to planting bio-char input forests of bamboo, we've identified additional sources of raw material for the production of bio-char: materials that would otherwise be burnt or dumped in rivers such as sawdust from the region's many sawmills and brazil nut shells left as a waste product from the significant brazil nut processing facilities in our region.  We've found over a dozen partners willing to provide us with these otherwise-would-be-trash source materials.

4. Research into bio-char best practices for our region of the Amazon-- There are many different ways to produce charcoal, and not all are created equal.  For example, some new technologies release 75% less methane than traditional charcoal-making techniques.  After extensive research in the literature, we've opted for our favorite bio-char production system: the Adam Retort charcoal oven.  The Adam Retort makes using a variety of materials simple, and the "retort" part means the oven is self-fueling, reducing waste and combustion of input materials.  The next chapter of this project will involve the actual construction of our first Adam Retort oven.  Future community ovens to come!

We are so grateful for your help in creating charcoal that has secuestered over 40 metric tons of carbon so far, and in so doing improving and enriching fragile Amazonian soils.

Warm greetings from the Peruvian Amazon,

Amazonian farm products can be grown with biochar
Amazonian farm products can be grown with biochar
Fragile and degraded soils of Amazonia
Fragile and degraded soils of Amazonia
Crops grown with biochar in soils
Crops grown with biochar in soils
Bamboo grown for charring
Bamboo grown for charring
a scarlet macaw at Camino Verde
a scarlet macaw at Camino Verde

There are few spectacles as visibly transformative as the rainy season in the Amazon.  In our home in Tambopata, Peru, intense rains can change the course of rivers and alter landscapes literally overnight.  These last few months have brought the most potent rainy season in the last half a century to our area, and the feeling of transformation is still palpable.  The highest river rise in 50 years has changed the face of Tambopata, part of the extraordinary cycle of life and death that is ongoing in the rainforest. 

But currently there are other winds of transformation in our area as well.  Illegal gold miners in our Madre de Dios region have taken to the streets of the department's capital of Puerto Maldonado, demanding the government make laws more lenient and permissive to their mercury-heavy and ecologically heavy-handed gold mining.  The current laws are poorly enforced, and are somewhat cursory in their ecological protections.  As I write, our city is paralyzed by a miners' strike that has closed schools and access routes and shut down all commerce.  In the uncertain scales of environmental justice balance the needs of thousands of working men and women in the mining zones, and the ecological integrity of one of the most bio-diverse regions on Earth.

For us at Camino Verde, there is a remarkable feeling of calm through these storms.  Our business is planting trees and conserving forests, and happily things are business as usual at our center.  One of the most effective and efficient teams of reforestation and agroforestry workers in our region is actively restoring degraded ecosystems and helping keep the green lung of our planet green.

Even so, the river rise meant that several hundred of our trees were killed by these rare water levels.  A lesson well learned-- to replant the affected areas with water-loving trees, but we need your help to do that.  We are seeking support from our donors now in order to bounce back from our losses, small in comparison to so many of the farmers in our region who lost whole fields of crops to the river.  Please help us in this work alongside our region´s farmers, to plant trees resilient to the wildly varying conditions of our region.

Despite the intensity of this time of year for reasons ecological and social, as ever I'm filled with a sense of gratitude for the life of the forests of the Amazon.  Recently I had a chance to greet a unique visitor to our reforestation center, a scarlet macaw who came to land outside our kitchen and was even willing to grab onto my hand.  The astonishing gifts of life are with us always.

Warm greetings from Tambopata,

Dear friends,

What if everyone in the world realized that the best way to celebrate this season was to plant Christmas trees?  With the close of one year and the coming of another, it's a wonderful time to reflect on where we've been and where we're going, who we've been and who we're becoming.  Thanks to your support, Camino Verde has had an extraordinarily fruitful 2013, and we're looking forward to all that 2014 will bring.  When you plan your holiday giving, we're grateful for your consideration as a worthy project to support.  We, and the trees, thank you!

A year in review

In 2013, Camino Verde broke new ground in several areas.  Here's a few of the highlights--

-In February, we planted 900 rosewood seedlings in the native community of Brillo Nuevo, Loreto, Peru in the parcels of indigenous farmers looking to establish a sustainable income from tree crops. (Photo 1, below.)  This brought the total number we planted in the first quarter of 2013 to 2,100 trees

-In April we inaugurated our new buildings at the Camino Verde reforestation center.  From the ground up, these new lodgings for visitors, volunteers, and staff are at the vanguard of sustainable architecture for the rainforest (Photo 2, below).  Thanks for making our new home so sturdy!  (And come visit.)

-In June we completed work on our tree nursery, which now allows us to propagate 2500 tree seedlings a year.  (Photo 3.)

-In November, with the first rains of the season we planted another 750 trees, our final tree planting of the calendar year.  These 750 trees represent a half dozen of the Amazon's most endangered, over-exploited trees.  Thanks to Carpe Diem Education for once again supporting our work in the world with volunteer visits and carbon offsetting donations!

What comes next?

In 2014, Camino Verde will ally with a diverse range of individuals and organizations to help transform our reforestation center into a world-class model farm of tropical agroforestry and sustainable agriculture.  Here are a few of the pieces of the puzzle to look forward to...

--Gorka Atxuara from the Basque country in Spain is an expert in bio-fertilizers.  Think compost tea: rich plant nutrient formulas that include abundant beneficial micro-organisms. In 2014, Gorka will help Camino Verde set up a small production facility for use in our tree nursery.

--Biochar!  In 2014 we're gearing up to step up the implementation of this vital technology on our farm.  Biochar improves soils and is an important carbon sink!  Check out our previous reports for more information.

--Allies from Earth University and the University of Guelph are helping us to implement solar power, biogas digestion, and other amazing green technologies on our farm.  With their help, we are aiming to become a living example of what's possible for our neighbors and farmer partners.

--And, of course, more planting trees!

Once again, we're grateful for your support in 2013.  Thanks for helping us to plant a greener world, one tree at a time.  

Dear Friends,

A few months ago, I was hired by a group of investors to offer a consultation on organic agriculture in our region of the Peruvian Amazon, Madre de Dios.  These bankers and businessmen were interested in contributing meaningfully to the improvement of agriculture in our region.  And, they were committed to making their contribution count by investing in organic, sustainable agriculture.  Thank goodness!

Part of my report was an overview of the current reality of agriculture in Madre de Dios: slash-and-burn as the norm, rapidly declining biodiversity on farm and off, increased use of agro-chemicals and non-native technologies.  It was a sad, scary list.

But the longest section in the report was a lot more inspiring and positive.  It was a rundown on all the amazing, powerful organic technologies and strategies that exist to make agriculture truly sustainable in the tropics. And one of the cornerstones of my review was, of course, bio-char.

The exciting outcome of this consultation job is that the investors have listened.  And they've expressed their interest in creating the region's first bio-char production facilities in the years to come.  While its too soon to know if these good intentions will be acted on, it's a very exciting step to see bio-char appearing in the field of vision of change makers and green investors.

Let's hope that soon, we at Camino Verde won't be the only ones making bio-char a reality in our region.

Warm regards from Tambopata!

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Organization Information

Camino Verde

Location: Concord, MA - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.caminoverde.org
Project Leader:
Robin Van Loon
Concord, MA Peru